What I learned designing Barbie dolls
Things I learnt from designing Barbie Dolls that continue to benefit me in designing experiences
Barbie inspires children that they can become anyone they wish. It did for me too. I had the opportunity to work for Barbie after graduating — truly a dream job! I was lucky to be a part of the Barbie legacy and work on fashion dolls, the Barbie Malibu House, and the Barbie Convertible.
This experience continues to influence me as a user experience designer. Here’s three things I learnt from designing Barbie DollsEntrance to the Barbie studio
1. Prototyping Matters
As people working in digital, we’re used to moving quickly and changing things at low cost. When working in three-dimensions, the process is longer, less flexible, and necessarily more linear. It relies heavily on early planning and prototyping before launching into the market, because of the time and cost of product manufacturing and logistics.
At Barbie, designers would move between moodboards, sketching, 3D modelling, and physical prototyping to see if our ideas worked. A team made of a product designer, product engineer, packaging designer, and costing engineer would have conversations around low and high fidelity prototypes. This created an iterative process to explore opportunities, and identify problems to research further. We needed to prevent as many issues as possible before the product was released to children.
Each prototyping method has its own benefits and would be used throughout the design process.
It’s a quick, simple, and inexpensive way of testing an early concept. We would use paper prototypes to check a design generally worked, for instance: do different Barbie Doll body types fit into this design?
Foamcore is a lightweight yet rigid sheet material. We would use this to focus on basic structure or functionality, especially for large-scale products. They were often made roughly in the early stages and evolve over time.
Digital 3D models
Creating 3D models from final drawings allowed us to view every angle and see the smallest details. This was the last chance to refine the design before building expensive physical models.
Physical 3D models
Handmade or 3D printed physical models based on the digital models would be the final visual check before investing in the injection mould tools for production.
Mould Tooling model
This type of model is produced by the same materials and injection mould tooling to be used in manufacturing, in order to check for critical issues on the materials and mould tools before production.
These are fully functional and aesthetically complete with packaging, produced by the production line in a small batch to assess how to manufacture and distribute in bulk. This is the last chance for refinement before mass production.
2. Don’t Get Lost In Translation
Barbie is an icon of American culture, reflecting American society. As new Asian markets emerged for Barbie, local audiences didn’t respond well to these same values.
I understood the problem to be that Mattel (Barbie’s parent company) tried to take their ‘Western’ strategy and apply it to ‘Eastern’ markets. For example, Chinese girls viewed Barbie simply as a beautiful doll, but didn’t understand the underlying feminist message inspiring girls to be anything they want to be; instead they thought it meant be sweet and soft, rather than smart and strong.
To understand how to address this, we conducted research with primary school students, parents, and their teachers in Shanghai. We observed their after-school journeys home. A major insight was the significant number of local stores selling stationary, snacks, and toys close to Chinese schools — something different from the U.S. These stores encouraged children to come in and play with friends on their way home. Learning this led us to change our product strategy; we launched a new Barbie line in those local stores as an experiment.
This was a big step in Mattel becoming more receptive to customers appreciating localisation, rather than the traditional approach to physical product design where one design is shipped to all markets. Many Western brands have failed when applying tried-and-true business models to foreign markets. In a globalised world, companies must understand local customers and behaviours first, then try to formulate a product strategy.
3. Always Ask What’s Next?
New technologies have expanded the variety of toys available, and changed how children play. The concept of toys has changed in recent years: more and more children are moving to devices, causing the toy sector to struggle as they fail to adapt quickly.
While I worked at Mattel, the company invested in a smart toy called Hello Barbie which integrated artificial intelligent and machine learning capabilities into Barbie dolls to stimulate a two way conversation between kids and toys. Unfortunately, Hello Barbie have been discontinued after receiving strong criticism from parents about children’s data privacy, security flaws and service issues. It is a great attempt to incorporate technology with toys, but little attention was paid to the customer experience leading to its failure.
This triggered me to ask myself
What could the future of Barbie Dolls be?
How can the play experience innovate with emerging technology?
How can toys create wider product engagement?
These questions led me to explore different industries, and when I discovered how the user experience design prioritised customer value over market-driven products, it was then I had decided to pursue a change in career.
In the digital world, things change quickly. We design mostly for websites and apps today, but augmented and virtual reality, AI and machine learning, and blockchain are growing fast. People’s behaviour and needs will continue to change, as will the tools with which we access information or experience services.
I work in the energy sector now. If we apply those same questions from when I was designing Barbies, we might ask ourselves
How might the energy industry change in the coming years?
With so many new technologies and ways to connect emerging, what will the role of design be in energy?
What could we be designing now to prepare for the interfaces of the future?
The main thing I’ve learnt in my career so far is no matter the industry, no matter the product — we’re designing for people.
To provide the best services and experiences for our customers, we need to understand their needs, goals, culture, and environment. We should prototype and test constantly, be sensitive to local variation, and always ask ourselves…. What’s Next?
Current UX designer for decarbonisation in Energy sector in London| Former Barbie doll designer | MA Service Design graduate from Royal College of Art.